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Political Rancor, Fear On Display In Debate Over EPA's Coal Proposals

Coal, one of Missouri's top export products this year.
(via Flickr/[sic])
Coal, one of Missouri's top export products this year.

(Updated 3:50 p.m. Tuesday, June 3)

Within minutes after the Environmental Protection Agency announced its proposed regulations for coal-fired power plants, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt blasted the decision as a “unprecedented power grab.”

Blunt followed through on Tuesday by co-sponsoring a bill, called the “Coal Country Protection Act,’’ that would allow carbon-emissions limits to go into effect only if other federal agencies could guarantee that no jobs would be lost, electricity rates wouldn’t go up, and the nation’s economy wouldn’t be hurt.

His allies include every one of the region’s other Republican members of Congress – in Missouri and Illinois – who have followed suit with equally combative language against the EPA.

“These regulations will have a devastating impact on hard-working Missourians when you consider that 80 percent of our folks rely on coal for their energy needs,” said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth (and a possible candidate for Missouri governor in 2016).

Said Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin: “The president’s plan would cause energy prices to skyrocket, cost millions of jobs and cause irreparable damage to our already fragile economy.”

Meanwhile, most of the region’s Democrats in Washington have been silent. Or, in the case of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., have deployed middle-of-the-road language that, in part, reflected the controversial political dynamics.

The rare supportive exception was U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chose to highlight the proposal’s state’s-rights angle.  He noted that the plan would allow states “to work individually or regionally to meet specific targets” in line with the federal goal of reducing green-house emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Democrats seen in more political danger

The stark differences in the partisan reactions largely reflects the widely held belief that curbing greenhouse emissions is a no-win issue for national Democrats already concerned about their prospects of retaining control of the U.S. Senate -- and a plus for Republicans.

“There’s going to be political fallout, and it’s not going to be good (for Democrats),” said Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University.

Ann Wagner has set up an exploratory committee for a potential campaign for U.S. Congress.
Credit (via Wikimedia Commons/ United States Department of State)
Ann Wagner

That’s because all sides agree that curbing emissions could lead to job losses – the two sides differ on the severity – and will likely also result in higher energy costs or changes in public behavior.

In any event, the political impact could be particularly significant in the swing states, such as Iowa, where Democratic-held Senate seats appear to be up for grabs this fall – and where coal is a primary fuel.

That said, the politics of the EPA’s proposal isn’t likely to have much political impact in Missouri, even though we’re a coal-dependent state, Warren added.  The reason? Missouri isn’t a political battleground this fall.

Missouri doesn’t have a U.S. Senate contest this year, and all of the eight congressional seats are considered “safe districts’’ for either the Republican or Democratic incumbents.  The GOP already holds six of those seats.

The only fallout in Missouri, quipped Warren, is that Republican candidates may seek to use the latest EPA plan as a means to whip up donors and raise more political cash.

Nationally, said Warren, “I don’t think President Obama’s proposal will play very well, except in states where he’s doing OK anyway.”

Take, for example, Obama’s home state of Illinois. Durbin’s generally supportive comments may have reflected – in part – his political strength as he heads into his re-election bid this fall.

Durbin, Enyart split over EPA plan

“Power plants are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions, and any meaningful strategy for addressing climate change must include a reduction in their harmful emissions,” Durbin said. “The proposed rule by the Environmental Protection Agency gives states like Illinois the authority and flexibility to develop a strategy to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, encourage local stakeholders to develop a plan to protect jobs, and provide the next generation a more livable world.”

Credit (WikepediaCommons)
Bill Enyart

But Durbin’s fellow Illinois Democrat – U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart of Belleville – didn’t share that opinion.  Enyart, who is among the national GOP’s top targets, issued statement making clear that he opposes the EPA’s proposal, calling it an “unnecessary regulatory attack on our coal  plants.”

While emphasizing that he agrees on the importance of “a cleaner, safer environment for our children,” Enyart said the EPA’s proposed reductions were impractical and unrealistic. “Instead of penalizing the coal industry, we must work to improve clean coal technology and bring costs down,” Enyart said. “As we do this, coal will become even more environmentally friendly.”

Back in Missouri, Blunt reaffirmed his longstanding belief that Obama and the EPA were unfair and unrealistic in targeting U.S. coal emissions, while in his view ignoring the unregulated coal pollution underway in China and some other major nations.

“There’s no doubt the president’s energy policies will destroy jobs and hurt the very people who can’t afford to pay more at the pump or to heat and cool their homes. Yet once again, President Obama and his administration proved they’re more concerned about appealing to the far left of the president’s party than helping low and middle-income families who are struggling to find jobs and pay their bills,” said Blunt.

The bill co-sponsored by Blunt would, in effect, block any emissions regulations by setting up a high bar.

Introduced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Blunt's statement says the bill "would ensure that before the EPA Administrator establishes any new regulation or guidance that limits carbon emissions from new or existing power plants, the following criteria must be met:

  •   " The Secretary of Labor certifies to the EPA Administrator the regulation will not generate loss of employment.
  • " The Director of the Congressional Budget Office certifies to the EPA Administrator that the regulation will not result in any loss in gross domestic product of the U.S."
  • "The Administrator of the Energy Information Administration certifies to the EPA Administrator that the regulation will not increase electricity rates."

Warren had earlier predicted that congressional Republicans, joined by some Democrats, would act quickly to block Obama's emission-reduction plan. "What he's proposing will die pretty quickly,'' the professor said.
McCaskill, however, has sought to downplay politics, and focus instead on the policy – perhaps in hopes of cooling down the controversy by advocating some sort of compromise.

“We’ve got several months to study this plan, and I’m glad the EPA agreed to my request to double the amount of time for public feedback,” she said in a statement. “I want to hear from stakeholders on all sides while I take a hard look at what these proposals would mean for our state. Any plan that earns my support will have to provide flexibility to states like Missouri and protect working and low-income families from costly increases in their electricity bills. One thing is clear—we can’t stand by and do nothing while air pollution increasingly harms the health and livelihoods of Missouri families and businesses.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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